March is a Pulitzer Prize winning story about CPT March, the father of the March family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It covers the year he spent in the Union Army during the Civil War, so it’s dark and heavy, but it’s also imaginative and well-researched and doesn’t shy away from tough topics and grim historical realities.
I read March as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. June’s assignment was to read a novel with a strong father figure because Father’s Day is in June (happy belated Father’s Day to all the dads out there!). Who better to read about than the father of the March family?
It’s been a long time since I read Little Women, but I believe the dad’s role was limited – he was away at war, he sent letters, he was gravely ill in Washington DC, and then he came home. This gave the author a lot of blank canvas to work with and she painted a very creative portrait. Interestingly, she used Louisa May Alcott’s father for inspiration. He was considered to be a radical, even establishing his own Utopian society. March isn’t quite a radical, but he was very progressive – a passionate abolitionist, vegetarian minister who created his own version of Christianity. And, like Alcott’s father, he was friends with fellow Concord residents Emerson and Thoreau.
The book opens with a grim scene that sets the tone for the rest of the book. March (I don’t think the author gave him a first name) was a Union Army chaplain and describes a battle in which his unit is routed in bloody fashion. These were the early days of the Civil War when the chaos was amplified by inexperience. From there, we learn about March’s life and inner thoughts through letters to his family, reminiscences, and descriptions of “current” events. He’s such a rigidly principled man that he doesn’t mesh with the men he’s supposed to be ministering to, leading to his relief from duty. He is then assigned to teach newly freed former slaves how to read and write, an assignment that ends in tragedy and sends March to a DC hospital, where he nearly dies. As I said, this is not light fare.
Every new circumstance provides an opportunity for the author to make a thoughtful point about the complexities of the times. She especially hammers home the atrocities of slavery, through truly heartbreaking scenes. This included a chilling example of how one slave owner justified slavery and lulled a young, naive March into complacency about it.
Also noteworthy was that the author used this opportunity to further develop Marmee, the mother in Little Women. She was painted as a woman mostly ruled by emotions, especially a sometimes violent temper. She was really inconsistent in her opinions – fiercely opposed to slavery but also opposed to the violence that was necessary to end it. I suppose it added some complexity to her character and her relationship with March, but I ended up not liking her very much.
March is creatively imagined and very well written but it’s a barrage of darkness with very little light. It needed some lighter scenes to balance out the heaviness. Maybe that’s too much to ask of story set during the Civil War? If I was to grade it, I’d give it an A- for story telling and a C for balance of tone.
Did you read a book with a strong father figure this month? Tell us all about it!
Reminder – July’s challenge is to read a nonfiction book about sports or athletes. The stupid virus took the Summer Olympics away from us this year, so we’ll just have to get our dose of athletic greatness from books!